The cooptation of open source (1)

How could I have missed this? There are still huge holes in the alerting services that I use!!

I have long had a question: to what degree does the fact that free software programmers now get paid, change the internal dynamics of peer production?

The following debate, taken from Linux Journal, effectively answers that question,while at the same time confirming the huge commercialization that has been going on.

On April 30, the Linux Journal asked an important question: Is Linux now a slave to corporate masters? Does it matter who pays the salaries of Linux kernel developers? If so, how much, and in what ways?. This question was prompted by a report from the Linux Foundation, on the characteristics of those working on the Linux kernel.

Tom Slee has summarized the findings:

One of the highlights: “over 70% of all kernel development is demonstrably done by developers who are being paid for their work”. 14% is contributed by developers who are known to be unpaid and independent, and 13% by people who may or may not be paid (unknown), so the amount done by paid workers may be as high as 85%. The Linux kernel, then, is largely the product of professionals, not volunteers.

So Linux has become an economic joint venture of a set of companies, in the same way that Visa is an economic joint venture of a set of financial institutions. As the Linux Foundation report makes clear, the companies are participating for a diverse set of commercial reasons. Some want to make sure that Linux runs on their hardward. Others want to make sure that the basis of their distribution business is solid. And so on, and none of these companies could achieve their goals independently. In the same way, Visa provides services in many different locations around the world in different sizes and types of stores. Some banks need their service mainly in one country, some in another, but when they work together they all get to provide their services all around the world.

…the Linux Foundation report has made clear that open source has crossed its commercial Rubicon, and there is probably no going back.”

Nick Carr predictably concludes from this:

“The shift in Linux kernel development from unpaid to paid labor, from volunteers to employees, suggests that the Net doesn’t necessarily weaken the hand of central management or repeal all the old truths about business organization.”

This specific argument is addressed by Timothy Lee, who is essentially saying that the corporatization of Linux has not changed its underlying organisational model:

For starters, most of the people contributing to the kernel are professional programmers, and most professional programmers have jobs in the software industry. So it’s totally unsurprising that most kernel contributors work for software companies.

But Carr’s observation also misses the point in a deeper way. What makes the open source model unique isn’t who (if anyone) signs the contributors’ paychecks. Rather, what matters is the way open source projects are organized internally. In a traditional software project, there’s a project manager who decides what features the product will have and allocates employees to work on various features. In contrast, there’s nobody directing the overall development of the Linux kernel. Yes, Linus Torvalds and his lieutenants decide which patches will ultimately make it into the kernel, but the Red Hat, IBM, and Novell employees who work on the Linux kernel don’t take their orders from them. They work on whatever they (and their respective clients) think is most important, and Torvalds’s only authority is deciding whether the patches they submit are good enough to make it into the kernel. Carr suggests that the non-volunteer status of Linux contributors proves that the Internet “doesn’t necessarily weaken the hand of central management,” but that’s precisely what the open source development model has done. There is no “central management” for the Linux kernel, and it would probably be a less successful project if there were.”

Ed Cone confirms:

What that kind of analysis is missing is that IBM is paying engineers to work on projects that IBM doesn’t own, or solely direct. You pay these engineers — but of all the relationships between senior management and line employees, the fact you are paying them is about the least important, institutionally. The idea that the minute you pay people to do something, you have the right to manage them and the right to completely take over that work for the benefit of the company — that’s not true.

IBM is not producing that code, IBM engineers are. IBM is paying those people because it’s getting value out of them — Linux creates value for the enterprise, it lowers our cost of managing software, it increases peoples’ budgets for hardware and services — but there’s this crazy middle step where Linux is not now and cannot be owned or controlled by IBM. Linux is a brutal technical meritocracy, and there is no senior manager at IBM who can say, “I don’t care what the kernel engineers think, I want this.” They can’t put it into the product without appealing to people who don’t work for them. If they announced a strategic change in the kernel they would be laughed out of the room. They have given up the right to manage the projects they are paying for, and their competitors have immediate access to everything they do. It’s not IBM’s product.

There is a kind of perverse misreading of the change here to suggest that as long there are paid programmers working on the project, it’s not developing in any way different from what’s going on inside traditional organizations. It badly misunderstands how radical it is to have IBM and Novell effectively collaborating with no contractual agreement between them, and no right to expect that their programmers’ work is going to be contributed to the kernel if people external to those organizations don’t like it. And that’s a huge change.

When people read those statistics, they think, If there’s a salary, then all the other trappings of management must go along with it. Not only is that not true, it’s actually blinds you to the fact that paying someone a salary without being able to direct their work is probably the biggest challenge to managerial culture within a business that one can imagine.”

Doc Searls then concludes the article with some personal observation and especially quoting a personal testimony by Andrew Morton, confirming the indepedence of kernel programmers:

Andrew went out of his way to make clear, without irony, that the symbiosis between large vendors and the Linux kernel puts no commercial pressure on the kernel whatsoever. Each symbiote has its own responsibilities. To illustrate, he gave the case of one large company application.”

Read the whole quote here.

Of course, this does not settle the matter of corporate influence over Linux development, and this issue needs to be further studied. Any material on this topic would be very welcome.

2 Comments The cooptation of open source (1)

  1. Pingback: Comercialización del Software Libre. « Matias Lennie

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